According to legend, there was a day when a man from a prominent family went down into his basement to find the collected works of Aristotle. He dusted them off and discovered that they had been damaged slightly. Undertaking to restore them, using only the tools available to him in the first century before the common era, Apellicon ensured that the works of one of humanity’s greatest ever philosophers would be available for future generations.
I wonder if this is how Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone felt while writing The Expendables 2? It’s a revival of everything that made early ’90s action films so wonderfully enjoyable. I’ve lost count of the number of recent action films which are desperately trying to make some terribly serious political point. In The Dark Knight Snoozes, for example, the sense of fun was eclipsed by the dreary clouds of socio-political commentary. You didn’t have that when I was a kid. The fun action films (rather than the pseudo-historical dramas) were about scrappy underdogs taking on people with diplomatic immunity. Or robots from the future. As a genre developed, we got too bogged down in relating it to the ‘real world’. Oh, it’s not believable to have a naked robot come back from the future to kill the mother of an activists. It has to be about our war with Islam or something. September 11 killed fun action films.
And, yet, here is The Expendables 2. A person waking up today from a twenty year coma would feel perfectly at home with it. When we’re eyeballs deep in movies based on comics, movies based on real wars, and movies based on ‘gritty’ indigestible things, The Expendables 2 is the renaissance of action films.
On the one hand, The Expendables 2 is a dumb action flick. People would (and should) go to the film expecting to see planes flown into mines and motorcycles used as anti-aircraft weapons. Heads explode. People explode. Assorted military vehicles explode. It’s all enormous fun. The part that I liked best about all the action scenes was that nobody thought using a bow and arrow would be better than using a gun.
On the other hand, The Expendables 2 is an exploration of how concepts of masculinity are still closely linked with our concept of justified punishment.
‘Oh, Mark,’ I hear you sigh from the future, ‘You think everything is a deeper exploration of power and state authority. How can this film — whose plot can only charitably be described as “Jean-Claude Van Damme fatally overdoses on cameo appearances” — be an exploration of power and state authority?’
To this, I would reply: ‘My good friend! Bear with me for a few minutes and see the world as I do. Let us share our experiences the same way we would share bread.’
Realising that I was going to tell you all about power and state authority regardless of whether you wanted to hear about it or not (I don’t have very many friends for exactly this reason), you would throw up your hands and allow me to continue, but only on the condition that I don’t make obscure references to books nobody is ever going to read.
Here we go.
The film begins like a racist joke. An Italian-American, an African-American, a Brit, a Swede, and a Anglo-American (with no dialogue) drive custom-built paramilitary vehicles through an impoverished, southeast Asian village shooting everything until it explodes. This battle — which includes the aforementioned motorcyle-as-aircraft-destroyer — sets the tone for the film. The Multicultural Pals invade an enclosed space (an arena, if you will) and shoot things.
No explanation is ever needed for why the protagonists are shooting things. Clearly, there is a crisis and it needs to be resolved. We know we’ve resolved the issue when the mortality rate cripples all local industries.
We discover that the Diversity Dirty Half Dozen are mercenaries. They have been hired to save a wealthy Chinese businessman. We don’t question whether the wealthy Chinese businessman is worth saving, or why so many villagers would be intent on keeping the wealthy Chinese businessman in custody. Those aren’t questions when we’re real men.
In this sense, the film is a power fantasy. People don’t worry about nuance or the legality of armed conflict when they’re thinking about how cool it would be to drive into ‘enemy’ (however defined) territory. All they’re thinking about it how many people they’d need to shoot before they reached their goal. I don’t play many army video games largely because they fall into this category of power fantasy: you shoot your way through until you reach your goal. Achievement unlocked.
Speaking of achievements unlocked, the cameos in this film come thick and fast. One of the most surprising is Ahhhrnold who is, quite frankly, fantastic. Ahhhrnold is the film’s messianic character. The beginning of the film is his resurrection, liberating him from the tortures and torments of his captors. Reborn, he immediately seeks out an enormous weapon (emasculating Old Spice Guy in the process) and then ascends into heaven. In times of need, Ahhhrnold descends from the heavens to save the protagonists — at one point undertaking a katabasis (recalling, of course, the story of Jesus’ descendit ad inferos in the Apostles’ Creed and the Gospel of Nicodemus) in order to free them from the belly of the Earth.
In this sense, the film represents two kinds of intervention: armed intercession and divine providence.
Missing from this picture, as shadowed earlier, is State intervention. There is no concept of the rule of law in this film.
The entree complete and a short palate cleanser with Charisma Carpenter, we begin the main course of the film. Bruce Willis appears and says: ‘I am extremely wealthy and you owe me money, Rambo. There is a jungle. In this jungle is an airplane. On the airplane is a safe. In the safe is a MacGuffin. I want the MacGuffin and you will do what I say because I am extremely wealthy and you are indebted to me.’
Jean-Claude Van Damme, on the other hand, wants the MacGuffin. Van Damme, like Willis, extremely wealthy.
As a viewer of the film, we have to determine quickly and efficiently whom we should support. Who is the rightful owner of the MacGuffin? On the one hand, Bruce Willis is wealthy but — equally validly, one might think — Jean-Claude Van Damme is wealthy. It’s difficult to choose.
Fortunately, Stallone and Wenk help the audience in its decision: Jean-Claude Van Damme delivers a short monologue about how much he loves Satan.
Where we have already established two mandates of authority — of arms and of heaven — Van Damme makes the perfect villain. He has a small army in his employ (just like Willis) and he is the avatar of Satan (the antithesis of Ahhhrnold). Where ordinary people would seek the decision of a competent authority, the paramilitary which didn’t pledge its allegiance to Satan relies on its individual moral authority to punish Van Damme for taking the MacGuffin (which they first stole from the airplane).
At its heart, the film is about the libertarian self-reliance to punish those who wrong us. Committing the author fallacy for a moment, this should not surprise us. Stallone is a Republican. Ahhrnold is a Republican. Chuck Norris is a Republican. Bruce Willis is Republican-sympathetic. And so on and so forth.
State authorities are mentioned twice. The first mention references a bureaucratic bungle regarding landing permits. The second mention notes that Uncle Sam shot a kid’s dog. This film glorifies rough music, and is nearly propaganda for the right to bear arms. The characters don’t look to others for justification; bootstraps!
Women are similarly dismissed in the film. Although one of the main characters is a woman (who is only allowed on the team after Stallone says: ‘I don’t work with women.’), anything she placed in the context of her gender. Consigned forever to sit at the kids’ table, she will be seen killing one or two combatants in between scenes of the male characters slaughtering insurgents wholesale. They come upon a village of women who shoot at them, mistaking them through wacky mishap for Jean-Claude’s crew. After two shots are fired, the main characters realise that women can’t shoot things and — to quote one of the characters — ‘the safest place would be directly in front of their guns’. Women don’t blow up things. Women don’t take matters into their own hands and sort them out with slaughter. Women don’t take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
And the only non-combat woman is a cheating nag.
There is also, as mentioned earlier, a strong link between several of the male characters and their weapons. We hear several times about how much one character adores his knuckle-dusters. Old Spice Guy really loves his big gun and is reluctant to offer it in supplication to Ahhrnold Jesus (he really loves his big gun). Chuck Norris is a ‘lone wolf’ who sometimes ‘runs with the pack’. One male character jokingly refers to the others as ‘ladies’. There is a constant repetition of their masculinity and how important it is to their self image.
It’s also this machismo which relates to the earlier narrative about self-reliance and fighting your own battles. Their attacks on Jean-Claude Van Damme and everybody associated with him are not justified on legal grounds; they are justified because our heroes are right-thinking men who can fight their own fights. Through an expression of violence, Stallone and co. are asserting their ability to defend their inalienable rights to whatever it was in the safe.
In conclusion, if Jean-Claude Van Damme had neither delivered the ‘Satan is my co-pilot’ speech, he would have been indistinguishable from the guy paying the ‘good guys’. Although Jean-Claude Chun Li-ed a knife into some guy’s chest, Team Stallone had just finished executing a village of randoms four minutes earlier. It says something that we’re expected to care more about the one guy than we are about the hundreds of villagers. This should make us question the subtext beneath the film and the extent to which we are encouraged to consider their acts just simply because they’re so very manly.
But go see the film. It’s great. Best action film of 2012.
I’m still confused about the ‘2’ bit in the name. Is it sort of like how the first season of Blackadder was called ‘Blackadder: Season 2‘?